Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ was published in 1891 during the Victorian era. Oscar Wilde was known during this time for his literary works and used this novel to demonstrate the issue of society’s devotion to art. Wilde’s work reflects many key aspects of the Victorian era such as Aestheticism, concept of morality, view on women, status, science versus religion, and nature. Throughout his literary work, the culture is shown as devoted to art over morality this is discussed by Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward and Lord Henry.
A Picture of Dorian Gray was Wilde’s only novel written and published among his many literary works. Initially this novel was banned due to being too immoral along with its relation to aestheticism, these ideas played throughout his novel and many. Wilde was a believer that art did not have to be moral as it was not owned by society, but society however was moral. His appearance also played a role in seeing him as one of the leaders in the Aesthetic movement often his choice of attire would prompt new fashion trends due to this many believed it was really a novel of Wilde himself. This accusation, wilde later confirms stating he is all three main characters, Dorian is who he’d like to be, Lord Henry is how everyone perceives him, and Basil is how he actually is.
Many attributed the sections within the novel of Dorian’s obsession with the elegance of clothing and fashion to wilde’s own high regard for fashionable attire. Wilde explains in the beginning of this novel how he bases this concept of aestheticism on his two idols, John Ruskin and Walter Pater. This explanation led some to believe this novel was Wilde’s way of spreading Aestheticism.
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Morality was one of the key characteristics during the Victorian era, this is shown in the novel when Dorian attends a lunch with the duchess, and they began discussing how loose American women were compared to English women (38). This theme of morality was also shown in another novel, Stevenson's ‘A Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ novel also written during this period. These two novels are similar in that they both have the women shown as meek, and weak. In the other novel, the women are either crying, prostituting, or being trampled. While in Wilde’s novel, the women are also prostituting, crying for a man’s attention, and committing suicide.
Lord Henry described women as creatures who never know what they want and only settle for a husband out of curiosity. Morality was also discussed in both novels when spectators observing Sybil Vane and Hallward’s death rather than saying it was suicide they contemplated other possible scenarios as it was not moral to do such an act.
This idea of society’s morality was also described when Mr. Utterson finds Dr. Jekyll’s body and they contemplate suicide but also murder as it again was not moral so could not have been the case in their minds. In the novel’s preface, wilde essentially is responding to critics and their judgement of the morality and or lack thereof within his novel. This is reflected when wilde states “The critic is he who can translate into another manner or new material his impression of beautiful things” (Wilde, 1). This was a direct response to the original publishing and edited version within the Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine which editor erased hundreds of seemingly immoral phrase and words without Wilde’s knowledge (Guan). This preface continues on to say an artist's artwork is just that and should not be looked at to find another meaning.
The Victorian era’s second key aspect reflected in this novel was the concept of science versus religion. This idea was hugely shown in many conversations made by Lord Henry to many of his guests and friends. Lord Henry explains how science should be used instead of emotions as emotions can cause one to veer off. This is similar in Stevenson’s novel when Mr. Hyde is not held responsible for his outrageous actions due to Dr. Jekyll's scientific experiments.
This novel reflects how the religious Mr. Utterson is compared to the scientific Dr, Jekyll with their decision making, and actions taken during this strict and high moral period. Another key point was in Wilde’s novel when Dorian is depicted to be a religious and moral man but once meeting lord Henry all throughout the novel, he is in a downward spiral of sin becoming immoral by Henry’s word of science and aestheticism. This I believe was Wilde’s attempt to discuss aestheticism and their views through Lord Henry thus spreading the word of Aestheticism.
During the publishing of Wilde’s novel in 1891 some events that took place in England was the sinking of the British steamer “Utopia” ultimately killing 574, the creation of the trans-Siberian railway began, and Wilde being sentenced to imprisonment for homosexual relations with men. These events had no effect on his writing of his novel as they occurred shortly after it was published, some literary work that had an effect on his writing was ‘A Rebours’ this was similar in that Wilde in his novel made Dorian Gray’s life affected by a ‘A Yellow Book’ , in the same way, “It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed” (Wilde, 91).
Much like A Rebours, the “yellow book” is about a young Parisian who tries to figure out what it is like to live during other centuries; what kind of passions and ideas that are circulating. Moreover, the Parisian youth wants to sum up the various moods in himself “through which the world-spirit has ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as those natural rebellions that wise men call sin” (Wilde, 91). Later in the novel Gray finds himself entranced by the yellow book: “The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter… “(Wilde, 92). This was similar to wilde’s obsession with A Rebour as he bought many copies of this novel just as Gray had, this also shows how Wilde sees himself as wanting to be Gray as mentioned previously.
The theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray being self-pleasure and moral awareness is based off from a real event that took place in Wilde‟s life. Wilde used to visit a painter named Basil Ward, who at one point had an incredibly beautiful model in the studio, Wilde discussed his opinions of the shame that such a pretty face had to age. The artist responded with his own idea of the painting growing old instead while the model maintained his youth. Wilde retained this memory and thought it an interesting concept which prompted him to write his novel. He showed Basil Ward his gratitude by naming one of his main characters Basil Hallward (Pearson 156-157).
Two other main characters who Wilde believed to be himself were Lord Henry The character of Lord Henry in his novel attributed many characteristic traits of Pater, Wilde‟s college professor. Pater taught Wilde the philosophy of Aestheticism in a similar way Lord Henry teaches Dorian Gray about life values, but in the novel Lord Henry strongly resembles also Wilde himself. Wilde‟s lifestyle is broadly mirrored in the novel, where tea parties, social gatherings and meetings with important people play a significant part in Lord Henry’s life. Wilde enjoyed great social gatherings and was often invited to upper class festivities. Furthermore, he was famous for his own tea-parties, his friendliness, hospitality, liveliness, and intellectual entertaining conversations (Pearson 40). Lord Hnery and Wilde were similar in that Wilde also held drawn out speeches during his tea parties, and making paradoxes which he laughed at himself, but he could also cite verses by others almost verbatim.
These speeches given by Wilde became a platform to spread his aesthetic views. Similarly, Lord Henry makes remarkable statements to cause reactions, as for example “there are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating – people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing. The secret of remaining young is never to have an emotion that is unbecoming” (Wilde, 62). The two characters Lord Henry and Dorian were opposites but were drawn to each other mainly Dorian as he was attracted to Lord Henry’s outlook and view on subjects just as Wilde was drawn to Pater’s aesthetic speeches.
Lord Henry seems to have a clear idea of what life is like and how it should be lived and he tries to convince Dorian Grey of his sentiments. Many of his striking statements, like “the aim of life is self-development. To realize ones nature perfectly – that is what each of us is here for” (Wilde rev ed 13) are indeed Wilde‟s own opinions; thereby, through Lord Henry Wilde could share his perspectives on Aestheticism with the readers. Dorian Gray is young, beautiful and, at first, an innocent model. However, the real person behind Dorian Gray is Wilde‟s lover, John Gray. He is the beautiful and adorable person who inspired Wilde to create Dorian Gray, but Dorian Gray and John Gray do not share other qualities (Pearce 223).
Instead, Dorian Gray shows more resemblance with Wilde himself, especially in how he as a young man encountered the aesthetic principles. Through the novel, Wilde could reach a broad audience and define his Aesthetic ideas, covering them in conversation between his main characters. Many people affected Wilde in his search for life purpose; Pater in particular influenced Wilde‟s way of relating to religion and Aestheticism (Pearson 35).
In a similar way, Dorian Gray is affected by Lord Henry. Lord Henry has clear judgments about everything, something which troubles Dorian Gray at the same time as it fascinates him. In fact, he cannot stop thinking about Lord Henry‟s words. He wants to live by the aesthetic principles, but his wish 9 to remain young and beautiful forever makes him lie and even murder. Wilde did not become a murderer as Dorian Gray, but his interpretation of Aestheticism gradually changed into involving a fascination for sinners (Pearce 244).
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